Yellowstone National Park sits on a hotspot: a plume of molten rock coming up from deep inside the earth capable of volcanic eruptions far greater than any that have occurred in times past. It has been silent for many years, providing false security for a nation unprepared for the full force and fury of nature unleashed.
It begins with explosions that send lava and mud flowing far beyond Yellowstone towards populated areas. Clouds of ash drift across the country, nearly blanketing the land from coast to coast. The fallout destroys crops and livestock, clogs machinery, and makes cities uninhabitable. Those who survive find themselves facing the dawn of a new ice age as temperatures plummet worldwide.
Colin Ferguson is a police lieutenant in a suburb of Los Angeles, where snow is falling for the first time in decades. He fears for his family who are spread across America, refugees caught in an apocalyptic catastrophe where humanity has no choice but to rise from the ashes and recreate the world…
Between two and three million people came to Yellowstone every year. In July and August, they all seemed to be there at once. Cars and RVs and tour buses clogged the roads till they made California freeways at rush hour look wide open by comparison.
Kelly Birnbaum knew how to beat the crowds. Go a quarter of a mile off the asphalt and you shed way more than nine–tenths of the visitors. Go a couple of miles from the highways and you were pretty much on your own. That was bad news as well as good. Cell–phone reception in the vast park was spotty at best. If you got into trouble, you might not be able to let anybody else know.
The idea, then, was not to get into trouble. Kelly was a city girl. She didn’t hike the wilderness because she particularly loved hiking the wilderness. She went out there because that was what you did if you were a geologist working in the field.
What did the gravedigger in Hamlet say? Something about familiarity lending a quality of easiness. That was as much as she remembered. Considering that she hadn’t needed to worry about Hamlet since her undergrad days, she was moderately pleased to come up with even so much.
One of the basic lessons was never to hike alone. Since she was part of a team of researchers trudging out to Coffee Pot Springs, that wasn’t an issue. Ruth Marquez came from the University of Utah. Daniel Olson, who was younger than she was, had just landed a tenure–track job at Montana State, in Missoula. Kelly didn’t know whether to be jealous or to remember it was Missoula. And the calm, unhurried fellow who needed to buy a vowel was Larry Skrtel. He’d been with the U.S. Geological Survey the past twenty years, and headed up the team.
He enjoyed hiking. “The critters are less likely to bite you or run over you than the damn tourists are,” he declared.
“Except for the bison, maybe,” Daniel said. “They’re as dumb as the morons who bought Hummers when gas was cheap.” He was at least six–three, but Kelly had seen his car: a fire–engine red Honda the size of a roller skate.
“Keep your distance and they won’t bother you,” Larry said. “Well, usually.”
“Famous last words,” Daniel said. The other hikers laughed, as if he didn’t mean it. Bison knew they were the biggest critters in the neighborhood, and expected everything else to get out of their way. Some of the males weighed as much as Daniel Olson’s little car. They were dumb as rocks, and lots of those males had testosterone poisoning. Not a good combination.
The geologists had set out from Indian Pond. One of their colleagues took the car that brought them that far back to Lake Village. A train led towards Astringent Creek, which guided them most of the way north. Indian Pond was a good place to start. It lay near the northernmost edge of Yellowstone Lake. It was about a quarter of a mile across, and round as Charlie Brown’s head. A hydrothermal explosion had gouged it out of the ground about 3,000 years before—that was what the radiocarbon dates said, anyhow.
A bigger hydrothermal explosion had formed Mary Bay, the nearby part of the lake. Down below Mary Bay, the temperature got up over 250 degrees. The hot spot under Yellowstone might still sleep, but it was a long way from dead. Kelly shivered, though it was a nice day.
She was slathered in Deet. Mosquitoes buzzed around her just the same. Repellent or no repellent, she knew she would pick up bites. She’d even been bitten through thick socks. Now she sprayed her ankles, too. But all you had to do was miss a couple of square inches anywhere, and the mosquitoes would find them.
Larry Skrtel pointed to half a dozen lodgepole pines that lay tumbled like jackstraws. When his hand went up, a woodpecker that had been drumming on one of the trunks flew away. “Those trees weren’t down two years ago,” Larry said in a voice that brooked no argument. “Five gets you ten one of the quakes knocked them over.”
No one did argue with him. Kelly wouldn’t have dreamt of it. Arguing with somebody who was obviously right was a loser’s game.
Up the eastern side of Astringent Creek they went. They were near the eastern edge of the caldera. Kelly shook her head. Of the last caldera, she corrected herself. This one stretched most of the way across the park. The eastern edge of the one from two million years ago was also somewhere around here. That one’s western edge, though, lay well over into Idaho.
Quakes . . . Was that a brief rumble underfoot? Kelly had almost convinced herself she was imagining things when Ruth Marquez laughed self–consciously and said, “Did the earth move for you, too?”
Everybody groaned. But Daniel said, “Yeah, I think so. That was only a little one—maybe a 3.3.” Larry nodded.
Kelly smiled, remembering Colin guessing the magnitude of the stronger quake the year before. They might never have got together if he hadn’t. Life could be seriously strange sometimes.
“Harder to be sure when you’re outdoors,” she said. “Not as much stuff to rattle and shake. When you’re indoors somewhere, there’s less room for doubt.”
Larry paused thoughtfully. “I’m not sure I’ve ever been indoors for an earthquake,” he said. Daniel and Ruth both nodded.
“Only proves you guys aren’t from California,” Kelly said. As far as the other geologists were concerned, that made them lucky. They teased her. She sassed them back.
As the crow flies, Coffee Pot Springs was between twelve and fifteen miles north of Yellowstone Lake. There were more ravens than crows in Yellowstone, and the land route was longer than the aerial one would have been. They hadn’t got an early start. They weren’t hurrying, either. They were fit enough, but none of them except possibly Daniel was really fit. Kelly guessed they wouldn’t get there before nightfall, and she turned out to be right.
Along with the Deet, she smelled of her own sweat and the sunscreen she’d also used liberally. Up around 8,000 feet, sunburn came easy. She also smelled the chemical odor rising from Astringent Creek. Yellowstone was full of such hellish reeks. Fire and brimstone had shaped this land, and were a long way from gone even now.
Freeze–dried food could have been worse. That was as much as she could say about it. But a million stars blazed in the night sky, and the Milky Way glowed bright and ghostly. You never saw—you never imagined—the heavens like this in L.A. or Berkeley. Too much air (too dirty, too), too many lights. Too many people, was what it boiled down to.
Kelly would have enjoyed the view more if she’d stayed up longer. But she soon sought her sleeping bag, and she wasn’t the only one. Her last conscious thought was I hope the bears stay away.
They must have. She woke up undisturbed just before sunrise. Almost undisturbed: an itchy bump on the inside of her left wrist said at least one mosquito had found a place to eat.
Larry had real coffee, and was willing to share. Kelly and Ruth were glad to partake of his bounty; they’d only brought instant. Daniel declined. “I don’t drink it,” he said.
“My God!” Kelly exclaimed. “How did you get through grad school?”
“Crank,” he answered calmly. She didn’t know him well enough to tell if he was kidding.
They buried their trash, doused the fire, and went on. “I want to put in for a new set of legs,” Ruth said as she worked out the kinks.
“Oh, good. I’m not the only one,” Kelly said. Neither Daniel nor Larry complained. Maybe they weren’t feeling it the same way. Then again, they were guys, so maybe they were just being macho. Testosterone didn’t addle male bison alone.
Here and there, hot springs fumed and mud pots bubbled. A lot of them didn’t even have names. There were more features like that in Yellowstone than in the whole rest of the world. A couple of dozen hot spots burned through the earth’s crust. One of them raised the Hawaiian Islands, another the Galapagos chain.
But most of them lay under the oceans. The lava that came from those was smooth–flowing basalt. The Yellowstone hot spot alone sat under continental crust. Rhyolite was like granite, only with bigger crystals. When it melted, it didn’t spread out easily, the way basalt did. It was too viscous. It just sat where it was till the pressure got too great. Then . . . Then the supervolcano went off.
They tramped along Shallow Creek, getting close to the springs. A coyote eyed them from the edge of the pines, then drew back. Larry said, “If it was along the road, half a dozen cars’d stop so the jerks inside could photograph a wolf to wow Aunt Martha back home.”
He was right once more. Kelly had seen it happen. She knew the difference between the two. Most people these days, though, grew up—and stayed—so isolated from nature that any wild animal seemed exotic to them.
That was one of the things that made Yellowstone so precious. Here was a great big, not too badly disturbed chunk of what North America had been like before Europeans arrived. You couldn’t find anything like this elsewhere, and not just on account of the wildlife.
And if the hot spot sitting under it discharged, then what? Then you’d gone and dropped thousands of square miles of unspoiled wilderness into what was literally the world’s biggest barbecue. You’d never see your bison or your wolves or your grizzlies again.
The really bad news was, that would be the least of your worries.
Steam rose ahead. A small swell of ground kept the geologists from seeing the springs themselves for a little while. Kelly remembered them from the last time she’d come this way, not long before she met Colin. They’d been, well, hot springs. If they’d been anywhere close to a road, people would have stopped and snapped pictures of them and queued up to use a couple of odorous outhouses. They weren’t so showy as the ones in Black Sand Basin or Biscuit Basin, northwest up the highway from Old Faithful, but they weren’t half bad.
They lay within a rough circle of sinter: the grayish white silica that precipitated out of mineral–laden water as it cooled. All things considered, they reminded Kelly of zits on the face of the earth. On a larger scale, that was what the Yellowstone supervolcano was. She wished she knew where she could get her hands on a dab of cosmic Clearasil.
“Remember, folks—watch where you put your feet. No boardwalks here,” Larry said. Fair enough: he had more field experience than the rest of them put together. “Stay off the sinter crust. You can break through. You won’t like it if you do—trust me. Don’t count on animal tracks, either. I’ve seen more parboiled critters than I like to think about. Most places, I’d say the grass was pretty safe. Here, with everything that’s been going on, I’m not sure how good a guide it is.”
“That doesn’t leave much,” Daniel observed as they climbed the low rise. “Maybe we should walk three feet off the ground.”
“Don’t let me stop you,” Larry said. Daniel gave him a sour smile.
Going uphill made Kelly’s thighs and calves ache. Walking gave you great legs. (Better legs, anyhow; Kelly feared hers would never be great.) But you paid a price. Everything you did came with a price. The older she got, the more sure of that she became.
As if defying time (no, not as if—if only!), she pushed the pace the rest of the way. The others didn’t mind letting her forge ahead. They’d all come to Coffee Pot Springs before. It wasn’t as if she were stout Cortez (well, Balboa, if you wanted to be picky—Keats would have got a C– in Western Civ) on that peak in Darien, staring at the new–found Pacific.
Except she was. Coffee Pot Springs had gone nuts. A brand new geyser threw water at least a hundred feet in the air. Some of the other springs weren’t just pools any more. They boiled and raged, blorping water eight or ten feet high, trying to find their inner geysers, too. Several of them, she was convinced, blorped from places that hadn’t boasted springs before.
Ruth and Daniel and Larry came up beside her. As she had done, they stopped and stood there gaping. “Holy shit,” Ruth said. Larry nodded. Recovering faster than the rest of them, Daniel pulled a camera from a pocket of his windbreaker and started snapping away.
Kelly started to reach for her own little Canon. She knew earthquakes messed with the plumbing systems under Yellowstone. After the Hebgen Lake quake in 1959, Sapphire Pool at the Biscuit Basin went batshit. It erupted so ferociously, it wrecked whatever subterranean channels that supplied it with water. Then it went back to being a pool.
Knowing about such things was all very well. Seeing Coffee Pot Springs totally transformed . . . that was something else again. And, as Kelly’s fingers closed on the digital camera, yet another sharp but mercifully short quake rattled the ground under her feet.
A voice said, “I’m scared.” Kelly needed a second or two to recognize it as her own.
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